Pressing for change: Women on the British Wine Scene
Natural wine writer Alicia Rose chats with the women driving modern winemaking in the UK.
Wednesday 13 October 2021
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“Sorry, my lips are all red with wine stains!” Zoe Driver apologises, sitting down to talk to me at Black Chalk Vineyard.
“We’ve just been tasting the wines–perks of the job!”
Zoe is the Assistant Winemaker at Black Chalk, the first recipient of “The Winemaking Apprenticeship” scheme, an initiative designed to foster new talent in British wine.
With each day spent grape-sorting, tap-changing and yeast-adding, she is quite literally making her way up the English winemaking ranks.
“I didn’t come from a wine background,” she tells me.
“I discovered a love of it when I was backpacking in Australia, ran out of money, panicked and got a job at Chandon. I absolutely fell in love with it. I worked the 2015 vintage in their winery and a passion for sparkling wines was born.”
Travel and wine go hand in hand for several of wine’s young women initiates. When I meet Jenni Middlehurst, she recounts how she packed up her job in corporate banking and headed for South Africa to try working at Groot Constantia, the oldest vineyard in the Southern Hemisphere.
“I was looking for a career change–I knew I needed to get out of banking,” she says.
“I’d smashed through my WSET levels but wanted to see that education in practice. The books were helpful but it’s only from working in a winery that you learn what yeast looks like or how to do a pump over.”
For Jenni, swapping the City for the vines was a powerful confirmation that wine was going to be her future.
“You’re going to make me emotional,” she says, remembering the feeling of heading up the towering mountains of Cape Town in her banged-up car towards the vineyards each morning.
“I couldn’t wait.”
But the team at Groot took their time warming up to this Banker-Brit.
“It was a while before they trusted me,” she remembers.
“They wondered who this crazy lady from Corporate London was and why she wanted to drive the vineyard quad bike.”
Being a female vineyard worker and winery assistant had its downsides.
“Because I’m a woman, I always got the worst jobs. People treat women like they can’t hold much even though I’d be saying “Can I step in?” I just figured that I’d never be able to lift more if I didn’t start lifting more.”
Back in Australia, Zoe had also jumped right in at the deep end.
“The winery was initially alien to me with all its tanks, piping and contraptions. I thought “there is no way I can do this” but I could. Now I love the physical, hard graft element of it–there’s blood sweat and tears but also the most amazing camaraderie in the team at Black Chalk.”
Despite this new wave of women in the wine industry, a legacy of male vine hands, vineyard managers and winemakers mean most practices are tailored to a male physique. When I ask Alex Veredesci (Vineyard Manager at Albury in Surrey) how she finds being a woman in the industry she tells me it’s tough.
“Horticultural work is hard work no matter if you’re a woman or a man, but if you’re a woman there is a more challenging physicality to it: the canopy management, winter pruning, hand-harvesting.”
Alex thinks this is part of the reason why women in viticulture are still rare, whereas women winemakers are really making strides now. There are, however, some trail-blazers. Kristen at Oxney Vineyard in Kent, the largest organic wine producer in the UK, has been driving the tractor and her own self-built operation from day one, with Sue Osgood also paving the way for women over at Bolney and now Vinecare.
They’ve inspired a younger generation and it’s this influx of youth into the wine industry which excites all the women I speak to.
“We need to make wine more relevant,” says Jenni.
“Tools like social media or casual tasting events are how we’re going to engage the younger consumer and the new talent.”
Wine influencers on Instagram and TikTok have emerged as a new power in wine. Women taking snaps of prosecco picnics or rosé on the veranda now command upwards of 30k followers and land lucrative brand collaboration or promotion deals. Upsettingly, several influencers found themselves lampooned in the press by older voices in wine, some female themselves. Their choices to pair wine photography with bare skin or fun-loving selfies was decried as cheap and unprofessional, despite the thousands of new followers it introduced to wine brands. But others have been more encouraging, inviting “vin-fluencers” to present on panels or judge at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge.
“We need to be kind and inclusive in this Industry,” says wine consultant Ania Smelskaya, “There’s room for everyone.”
She remembers her early judging experiences to be quite fraught. “As a woman, your palate is questioned a lot. If I thought a wine was faulty at a tasting event, I’d be challenged on that opinion. I felt included in the boys club but not heard.”
The tables are turning though and, along with her partner, Honey Spencer, Ania runs a successful wine consultancy with combined experience across cult-favourite restaurants like Silo, Sager + Wilde and has a project in Ibiza underway.
It all started for Ania on a date. “We went to Ekstedt, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Stockholm,” she remembers, “and were eating at the chef’s table. The sommelier took us on this incredible journey through the wines. He had bottles from producers like Testalonga in Swartland and was talking us through these unusual flavour pairings, putting elegant dishes with small-producer, skin-contact wines. I thought: I want to be like you when I grow up”.
Ania followed her nose to England, landing a job with restauranteur Michael Sager and a new career was born.
“I met Michael the day before Brexit, he gave me the job and I stayed. Sager + Wilde was an amazing time for my palate - I had to try all these exceptional wines on a daily basis.”
Now that Ania and Honey curate the list at several restaurants, their favourite female winemakers are finding their way to more people’s glasses. Ania is buzzing about Reka Koncz’s natural wines from Hungarian-Ukranian border and Deidre’s Heekins’s work with grape hybrids up in Vermont. She’s growing a global network of women winemakers, travelling to meet them in person and always valuing the connection between vineyard and drinker.
“It was so important for me to head to places like Piedmont or the South of France and meet the people growing the grapes before pouring the wine into my glass”.
Female wine-networking can happen among the vines or even over Zoom in this new digital age. My group of female wine-professional friends is ever-growing through WhatsApp groups, digital tastings, championing each other’s projects on social media and supporting one-another at events.
We’re not the only ones noticing the power of the female wine collective. Recently, when Squerryes vineyard in Surrey wanted to promote their English sparkling wine, who did they ask to come down to the vineyard? Not a group of ageing, male reporters from the old wine world, but a collection of young women influencers, buzzing with energy about the wines and armed with their mobile phones.
The tables are certainly turning.
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